The Avondhu - By The Fireside
The Mitchelstown man who became ‘The father of iron shipbuilding in America’
In the graveyard just in front of the Catholic Church in Mitchelstown there stands a fine memorial dedicated to the memory of Patrick Roche and his wife Abigail Roche (nee Meany). There is no mention on the headstone of any other family members or relatives, the inscription simply reads: ‘Of your charity, Pray for the souls of Patrick Roche of Mitchelstown who died A.D. 1831, aged 48 years; Also his beloved wife Abigail Roche Meany who died March A.D. 1858 aged 63 years. Requiescat in pace. Amen’.
Patrick and Abigail were the parents of John Roche, who became a famous shipbuilder in America. John was born on Christmas Day 1813 and when he was sixteen he emigrated to the United States. When he became an American citizen in late 1842, his name was mistakenly spelt Roach by the clerk of the court and he used this form from thereafter.
In 1836, he married Emiline Johnson and they would go on to have nine children. He settled at Howell, New Jersey and learned the trade of an iron moulder at James Allairs’ Howell Iron Works. In 1840 he went to Illinois and unsuccessfully invested in a farm. He returned to New York and together with three other mechanics he purchased a small iron works, with $200 starting capital. He eventually became sole owner of these works and in 1856 he purchased some adjoining land and built a foundry.
An boiler explosion at the plant wrecked most of the equipment and Roach, although penniless, had to borrow capital to rebuild the Etna iron works. In the early 1860s, he built the iron draw-bridge over the River Harlem (the Harlem Bridge) at Third Avenue in New York City and during the American Civil War, with an increase in demand for armaments and equipment, he built up his foundry and engine works until they became one of the best equipped in the United States.
He was among the first to recognise the importance of the shift from wooden to iron vessels and its possible effects upon the American merchant marine and he sent a representative to England to make a careful study of the methods of iron shipbuilding on the Clyde. In 1868, he began to carry out plans for the development of an iron shipbuilding industry in the United States.
Three years later he transferred his headquarters to Chester, Pennsylvania, acquiring the shipyard of Reany, Son & Archbold. Here, he engaged in iron shipbuilding on a large scale. Among the iron vessels his company, John Roach & Son, built for the foreign service were the ‘City of Peking’ and the ‘City of Tokio’, built in 1874 for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, up to that time the largest steamers constructed in the United States.
He was of great service to the Federal Government in the development of new types of marine engines, being among the first to recognise the superiority of compound engines for marine work. He was authorised by the Navy Department, as an experiment, to install the first of such engines built in the United States in Tennessee. The success of this effort demonstrated the value of this improvement and Roach was given contracts to install compound engines in other naval vessels.
The first ships constructed by him for the government were the sloopsof-war ‘Alert’ and ‘Huron’, launched in 1874. He next built the sectional dry-dock at Pensacola, Florida, and then, in 1876, received the contracts for the monitors ‘Miantonomoh’ and ‘Puritan’.
In 1883, the construction of the dispatch boat Dolphin and the cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and
Chicago was begun. When the Dolphin was completed the vessel was accepted by the Naval Advisory Board but due to political disputes between the Democrats and the Republicans, the secretary of the navy refused to accept their decision and cancelled the payments and the contract for the three cruisers, forcing Roach into receivership.
Fearing that this action might possibly result in embarrassment to his bondsmen and creditors, and because of his own failing health, he decided to close his works, and accordingly made an assignment on July 18, 1885, though he was perfectly solvent. The matter was later adjusted, but he never again took an active part in the business.
While not the first to build iron vessels in the United States, Roach launched 126 such vessels from his yard between 1872 and 1886 and deserves the title of “father of iron shipbuilding in America” (Hudson River Maritime Museum) which has often been accorded him.
He was active in awakening public opinion in favour of an American merchant marine and became perhaps the most influential and most highly respected authority on this subject in the country.
John Roche (Roach), a native of Mitchelstown, died in New York City on January 10, 1887 and was survived by five of his nine children.